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Global wind

June 29, 2012

Wind energy provides 3 percent of the global demand for electricity and will soon be delivering more electricity than nuclear power plants. Investment last year amounted to 50 million euros.

a wind trubine
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Wind energy is booming around the world. In Spain and Denmark, wind energy provides 20 percent of the electricity supply and in Germany 10 percent. Experts predict that the figure will rise to between 20 and 25 percent in Germany by 2020.

According to statistics released by the World Wind Energy Association (WWEA), wind turbines with a total output capacity of around 40 gigawatts were newly deployed last year. By the end of 2011, global output was around 237 gigawatts. This equates to the energy output of around 280 nuclear power plants. To compare: there are currently some 380 nuclear power plants around the world - but that's a figure which will diminish as nuclear power plants are decommissioned over the next few years.

Output to quadruple by 2020

The increase in capacity is proceeding quickly: every year there are 20 percent more turbines and the WWEA forecasts that output will quadruple to over 1,000 gigawatts by 2020.

Chinais taking a leading role in this process: in 2011, almost half of the new capacity was created there and it's now ahead of both the US and Germany as the leading wind-energy nation in absolute terms. But EU countries like Denmark, Spain and Germany beat China on wind energy per head. Only 3 percent of China's power comes from wind.

A graph showing global wind use in 2011

Cheap and clean

Wind energy is good for the environment and climate-friendly, but the reason for the worldwide boom is mainly the price. Electricity from wind turbines is often the cheapest source of energy. According to Stefan Gsänger, director of the WWEA, the current price for a kilowatt hour of electricity from new wind turbines on land is between 0.05 to 0.09 euros ($0.06 - $0.11). "That's why wind energy is one of the most popular sources of energy," Gsänger told DW.

In comparison, electricity from modern coal-burning power plants costs around 0.07 euros ($0.09) in Europe. But calculations by the EU and the German Ministry of the Environment indicate that the true cost of coal electricity is twice that. The soot from power plants is responsible for respiratory diseases, putting a financial strain on the healthcare system. The cost of electricity from modern power plants powered by other fossil fuels or nuclear power is also higher than that from land-based wind turbines.

Gsänger holding a model windmill
Gsänger says wind energy still requires political supportImage: WWEA

Guaranteed price

Even though wind energy is already among the cheapest of energy sources, Gsänger believes it still needs political support in the form of a guaranteed rather than a higher price. A legally binding purchase price is needed before banks are prepared to offer credit. Gsänger named the example of Turkey: "There, the guaranteed price is lower than the market price. Nevertheless, the guarantee is necessary in order for banks to finance wind farms. And I see that as a prospect in other countries."

Microcredit finance

The right financial tools are important if wind energy is to be successful. Unlike fossil-fuel power plants, the costs of wind energy are tied up above all in investment. In less developed regions, finance is a major problem - that's why there's scarcely any wind energy in many African nations.

As a way of dealing with that problem, Gsänger would like to see the use of microfinancing schemes, such as the Nobel Prize winner Mohammad Yunus has set up in Bangladesh, financing small wind turbines: "That means that businesses who supply the wind turbines also provide the credit. The electricity consumers then pay it back monthly but only have to pay once the turbines are delivering electricity."

A huge rotor assembly being transported at sea
The logistics involved in offshore wind farms means the energy they produce is more expensiveImage: Jan Oelker

Turbine trends

There have been major developments in wind turbine technology over the past few years. There are now taller wind turbines for low-wind regions and extra large rotor blades for greater efficiency. More offshore wind parks are also being built. The installation and maintenance of wind turbines at sea is expensive, costing 0.18 to 0.20 euros ($0.19-$0.25) per kilowatt hour - twice as much as for electricity produced from wind turbines on land.  

Another very different trend is that of small wind turbines for use in houses, small villages and industrial purposes. Over half a million turbines have been installed to date, the majority in the USA and China. Wind turbines are particularly cost effective for many people in developing countries and regions which would otherwise be unable to have electricity. Even users in developed countries increasingly benefit from using wind energy which is cheaper than that provided by most energy suppliers. Experts predict that the market for small wind turbine technology will grow significantly in the long-term.

Community-owned wind farms

Over half of all wind turbines in Germany are owned by local residents, farmers and local authorities. Hermann Albers, president of the German Wind Energy Association, believes that this has massively improved the acceptance of wind turbines among local communities as they directly profit from the sale of electricity.

small windmills against the sky
Small turbines are being used in households and on a local levelImage: BWE

The enthusiasm for large wind farms owned by private investors is nowhere near as strong, Albers told DW. Albers is himself a farmer and has established a number of community wind farms together with other farmers and local communities over the past 20 years. "Nowadays, we experience a high level of acceptance for community wind farms. In many cases, over half of the local population wants to invest in wind energy. People have really understood the opportunity it provides."

The WWEA sees community-owned wind farms as the best way of speeding up the global introduction of environmentally friendly energy generation. Its upcoming World Wind Energy Conference, which is taking place in Bonn from July 3 to 5, has been given the motto: "Community Power - Citizen's Power."

Author: Gero Rueter / hw
Editor: Michael Lawton